About a year ago I wrote about my situation as a conflict archaeologist:
Year 2016 is a bad one for archaeologists in Finland. I have applied for several jobs without success. For example there were total of 21 applicants for one two week job as basic diggers and the chosen ones had worked as assistant researchers for years in the same archaeological unit.
I wasn’t depressed, though, because during year 2015 I managed to get few funds to start writing a book about a Finnish communication unit during Continuation War (1941 – 1944). Trouble was that none was willing to pay the whole sum I applied for, but from few sources I managed to get enough to get started. Currently I’m finishing the script. First rule of writing: no matter how much time you think you need to finish the script, it’s never enough! It always takes more time than you thought it would.
History of a military unit, as written by an archaeologist
The unit I´m writing about is Viestipataljoona 33 (short form VP 33), which could be translated as Field Communications Battalion 33. Unit differs from basic infantry or artillery units in several ways. This makes the job much more difficult. Field Communication units used a variety of equipment, most of which says nothing to even most enthusiastic war historians. Very little has been written about Finnish Army’s communications during the war, so the book will be a pioneer work of one sort.
To further make the task more difficult, I am writing the book during time, when most of the war veterans have passed away or are usually too old and fragile to give any info by interviewing them. I have to rely mostly on archive material, war diaries and correspondence. This is as much a opportunity as a challenge. Because I have to write mostly using material that was created during the war I get a pretty good picture of the intentions of the members of the battalion. If I use material which is made after the war I get a lot of hindsight and of course even fabricated memories.
An archaeologist writing about a history of military unit? Does that even work? I believe that as an archaeologist I don´t write about war history in a better or worse way than war historians. Archaeologists write differently. Archaeologists pay attention to different things than war historians. Usually the war historians make maps that show blue, red, black and white arrows that go zigzag in the map against different set of lines in certain time frame. Individuals brought to readers are often those, who showed bravery and valor in combat and their deeds are explained in detail. That is of course important and interesting, but I’m more interested in how the soldiers lived. As an archaeologist I pay great detail into how the men tried to improve their living conditions, what sort of tasks were they interested in doing and what sort of labor was hated or even neglected. How did the soldiers react to changes? How did they respond to propaganda? How did the feelings towards war change during the long Continuation war?
As a unit, I’m interested in how the Field Communications Battalion 33 acted as an organization. Did it work? How were the men lead? Were there differences between the three companies and HQ in battalion? How was the battalion made better – or worse – during the war as an organization? Did the unit do something else besides building and maintaining communications? Was there sand in the machine?
For example the 2nd Companys (a phone company, which build phone lines) war diary shows, that during fighting in summer of 1941 the whole Company was suddenly put to alert because the Russians might succeed in their attack in front lines and the men might have to be put to counterattack. During the wait for new orders Commanding Officer wrote into the official diary of the unit “Company commander started smoking after half a year break.” One humorous line in otherwise serious and official material told everything about the stress the unit was under.
Another example about differences in the battalion was that First and Third Companies get their men from countryside. Second Company got its men from Turku, a city. This made big divides in the unit since the farmers got holidays more frequently and they were usually prolonged because the men were needed during times the fields had to be ploughed and the grain sowed, and finally in the end of summer they got holidays for harvesting. This meant that the town residents got holidays less frequently and they were for shorter times. This had great impact on morale.
Most important things that I study in detail which other than archaeologists might ignore are the material conditions under which the men lived. I have especially studied trench art and I have a pretty good picture, what was manufactured and when and why during the war in this battalion. There were interesting changes during the war and of course there are the pieces of trench art that were made of forbidden materials like aluminium, which was direly needed in war industry. This kind of trench art was done in secret.
I’m also interested in the ways men fulfilled basic needs of a human being: food, light, warmth, cover. In almost primitive conditions, especially during winter it was no easy task to get these things and they definitively weren’t taken for granted. Some times over 80% of the men were used for months to chop firewood. Out of four platoons in a company maybe only one platoon could be used for working with building and maintaining phone lines.
Food also showed another interesting divide in the battalion: the farmers got often packages which included food. According to one letter such a package was lost in train and arrived after 2½ months. The food stuff was mostly spoiled, but pretty good frying grease was made out of a ham – after several layers of mold were cut off from top of it. The cities were of course at the mercy of rationing, but they could send one good that was actually unofficial currency: tobacco. With it the town residents could trade food, play cards etc.
I’m also interested in innovations, new ideas and inventions that were made in the unit. I try to write down meticulously about the new communication equipment the battalion received. Unit gave constant feedback about the equipment they were using: some was judged as unnecessary, some was badly designed. There were several mentions of inventions, but unfortunately they weren’t described in detail. For example there are few notes about new ways to bring phone lines into switchboards and alarming systems installed into switchboards, but sadly no instructions of how they were actually made were written down. Bummer!
Of course when it comes to basic needs you might ask “WHAT ABOUT SEX?” Well, sexuality and sex weren’t of course written down in detail during 1940’s but a human being is a human being, so of course the question of sexual needs existed. When interviewing one veteran I asked him, what were the usual topics in everyday discussion. “Pussy and it’s endurance” the man replied. This is of course the unofficial documentation of the subject. One of the army’s field magazine wanted feedback from the army and the Battalion Commander and officer in charge of moral replied in official feedback “In every single magazine there should be pictures of pretty girls!!!” So there you have it. I haven’t found anything interesting for queer archaeologists, in case readers are wondering.
Material culture, living conditions, consumption, innovations, inventions… all these are basic archaeological questions when trying to understand past cultures. As an archaeologist I find myself asking myself time after time: what sort of material remains could I find, if I dug in places mentioned in war diaries, personal diaries and letters and so on? How would I interpret it? What sort of remains could a power plant made out of ancient locomobile leave behind after it’s evacuation? How would I interpet the effects of intensive recycling of all sorts of material? I managed to find the locations of the garbage yards near the unit, when they stayed in the conquered city of Karhumäki, but digging them (they are in Russia) is out of question. What sort of tale would those garbage yards tell about Field Communications Battalion 33?
Master of Arts (Archaeology, University of Turku, Finland 2012 and folkloristics, University of Turku, Finland 2014)
Photos are from the collections of Museum of Lieto, Finland.